This Week in Tutorials: Definition and Translation in Plato's Meno

I taught my first tutorials for Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment today. The aim of our discussion of Plato's Meno 70a-79d was to examine the definitions of virtue given in the Meno, question “definitions” and the possibility of making definitions, and practice discussing and evaluating texts from the history of philosophy.


The dialogue opens abruptly with a conversation between Socrates and Meno, a young aristocrat from Thessaly. The discussion is centred on virtue, or excellence (ἀρετή), and the question of whether virtue can be taught. For many of the Sophists, the belief that virtue can be taught was key to the education they provided. However, in the Meno, the question is whether virtue is the result of teaching, nature, or practice (70a). 

But first, Socrates asserts, before we can decide whether virtue can be taught, we must define what virtue is (70a-71d). We must know what the thing that we are dealing with is before we can discuss whether it has certain qualities, such as if it is teachable. Socrates invites Meno to attempt a definition of virtue.

Definition, we find, is a tricky business. Meno offers up three different interpretative strategies. In one, he gives examples of virtue: the virtue of a man and woman (71e). However, Socrates objects on the grounds that you cannot define virtue by providing a litany of examples of it. Meno's second and third attempts are objected to in similar ways. In the 73c, Meno offers a definition of virtue as the ability to rule, and at 78c as the ability to get good things. Both of these definitions, Socrates objects, are at the same time too broad and too narrow: there are cases of virtue they don't include, and cases of less than virtuous action that they do include.

Along with the issue of definition, reading the Meno requires us to engage with the issue of translation. Some students in the class brought along copies of the text other than the prescribed translation. On two different occasions today, students offered up their alternative translations along with the interpretative consequences of their translation. The following case is the one I want to look at in detail:

ἀρετή as virtue or excellence 

How do these different translations affect our interpretation of the Meno? The problem of definition revisits us: just as Socrates says that we must define ἀρετή to decide whether it is teachable, we must make a move to definite ἀρετή in order to translate it. 'Virtue', for the students, may be laden with moral connotations from when we studied virtue ethics last semester. Already, students wanted to introduce Aristotle as a contributor to our discussion. 'Excellence', on the other hand, isn't so strictly moral. We might say that someone is an excellent vet, meaning that they are skilled at diagnosing and treating sickness in animals. What would be the strictly moral sense of being a good veterinarian? Plato's usage of ἀρετή in the Meno seems to stand between these two translations: on the one hand, there is mention of canonical virtues, such as justice and moderation, but on the other hand, the definitions that Meno gives that hint at ἀρετή as doing something well, whether that is ruling or obtaining good things, look more towards the idea we have of 'excellence'. 

Beyond the philosophical problem here is the pedagogical problem: how far should I take first year undergraduate students down the 'alternatives in translation' rabbit hole, in a course taught entirely in translation? Would ἀρετή benefit from the 'eudaemonia' treatment, i.e., being generally left untranslated? It's easy to get distracted by the different ideas we can get from the text with the different translations in mind, and there's only so much time.